Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

FameLab: ‘the science take on American Idol’

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In my habitual Friday-afternoon wanderings around the Internet I came across an interesting workshop being run at the AGU Fall Meeting next week. It’s called FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond. The AGU session page is very brief. It says:

Come listen as young scientists aspiring to be the next Jane Goodall or Neil deGrasse Tyson share their passion for science in three minutes or less at ‘FameLab: Exploring Earth & Beyond.’ This science take on “American Idol” has 10 performers giving PowerPoint-free talks meant to engage all audiences.

FameLab in the USA is a joint venture from NASA and National Geographic. After a bit of Googling I discovered that it’s essentially a national heat for an international competition. It turns out FameLab is an established project which has been running since 2007, encouraging young scientists to develop and use their communication skills to connect with the rest of society.

Initially I was rather sceptical of this project. The name made it sound like an outlet for those seeking validation for their inflated egos. I asked myself whether that would appeal to real scientists. I quickly scotched this train of thought. Scientists are just people. Some people crave fame more than others. It’s a very human thing to seek recognition, though some go to greater lengths than others, and some deserve it more than others. The FameLab website describes some ‘performances’:

Some played it straight, some were slick and a few were downright eccentric. One contestant waved around tennis balls dressed in colourful wigs to highlight his point about polymer chemistry. Another jumped on a chair and performed pirouettes to animate his arcane research on spinning electrons. A third confessed that her props had been confiscated by customs and went on to threaten me with a gun that fires needles (“Yes, it could have been disastrous” she confessed afterwards).

I was drawn in. FameLab seems to be a fine way to encourage innovation in science communication. Some people are well-suited to the role of the entertainer-scientist (or, as I referred to them in a previous post, the celebrity scientist). Others are not, and I think it’s a mistake to think that every scientist can make their work fun and accessible for everyone. Some science is very hard to make appealing to a non-technical audience. Nevertheless, when an energetic and empathetic person combines with an interesting and relevant subject, an entertainer-scientist can result.

I think these people are entertainers first and foremost. They might have scientific credentials, but their primary role is to get non-technical audiences to listen to them, and sometimes that requires quite ruthless abstractions of the science. Brian Cox, Britain’s foremost entertainer-scientist, made this quite clear in a comment about the use of loud music during his TV programmes:

It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture…it [music] lends a lot of emotion and more depth

Here he is not speaking as a scientist. In that guise he wouldn’t allow himself to include the word ’emotion’. He is speaking as a communicator of science. He recognises the importance of ’emotion’ in the way most people think, most of the time. FameLab looks like a fine initiative to bring at least some of the great discoveries of science to the widest audience possible.

If I had one complaint, it’s that this approach to science communication focuses a little too much on the ‘wonder’ and the ‘mystery’ of it all. This is understandable, because these are emotionally appealing concepts. But a real strength of science is its critical, sceptical approach. Science teaches the ability to analyse claims, seek for evidence, test claims against available evidence, and modify opinions accordingly. I think there is a tremendous social benefit to getting people to acknowledge the cultural filters which remove ‘inconvenient’ facts and attempt to circumvent them. Imagine the attitude of a critcally-thinking public to the inherently biased journalism we face every day. People will start to check multiple sources to examine stories through different cultural ‘lenses’ and attempt to get at the facts behind the story, filtering out the noise and the ideologies of those who claim to be presenting the truth. ‘Rationality’ isn’t some kind of panacea for social problems, but I think the scientific approach applied to other areas of life could be very beneficial.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

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